China does Davos On a tropical island, China seeks to evoke an Alpine schmoozefest

The global elite flock to see Xi Jinping

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DELEGATES to China’s highest-profile annual gathering of the global elite had been promised something big. Amid the country’s mounting trade tensions with America, they were to get the most “authoritative explanation” of China’s plans to make its economy more open. On April 10th Xi Jinping, the country’s leader, gave the opening speech at the Boao Forum for Asia on the southern island of Hainan—his first public appearance since he was officially given permission last month to remain president for life. China Daily, an official mouthpiece, called it a new chapter for “Xiplomacy”. Mr Xi, however, delivered the authority, but not much else.

The president stuck largely to generalities and well-worn themes. He promised that the door to foreign businesses would “open only ever wider” under his stewardship, but offered no specifics that are likely to placate Donald Trump (notwithstanding a tweet from the American president saying he was “very thankful”). It was left to China’s chief central banker, Yi Gang, to add a bit of detail at a later panel: a faster than expected timetable for raising or lifting caps on foreign ownership of financial firms. That, however, is unlikely to assuage Mr Trump either (see article).

But Mr Xi had never been likely to use Boao as a forum for doing trade deals by megaphone. He saw it more as an occasion to bask again in the adulation he enjoyed last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos by proclaiming his commitment to globalisation and free trade, and expounding on his new idea for a “community with a shared future for mankind”. Building this, whatever it may mean, was made a constitutional requirement last month.

China has always relished comparisons between Boao and Davos. The area from which the Chinese event takes its name (roughly, “abundant plump fish”) was a village when, in 1998, three former heads of state from Australia, Japan and the Philippines, during a golf game, dreamed up the idea of an Asian conference to mirror the exclusive gathering in Switzerland. They were on land owned by a tycoon who had a plot ripe for development in Boao. Later, with the blessing of the Chinese leadership, it was transformed into the beach-and-golf resort that now hosts the four-day forum.

In 2002, its first year, Zhu Rongji, who was then China’s prime minister, apologised at a banquet for logistical problems. But the event has grown in stature. Bill Gates and George Soros have been; the UN’s secretary-general, António Guterres, and the IMF’s chief, Christine Lagarde, attended this year. Deloitte, the world’s biggest accounting firm, was the forum’s “intellectual supporting partner”. Present too were some of China’s e-giants, including Alibaba, a tech conglomerate, and Didi, China’s version of Uber. The parallel to Davos is no longer so far-fetched.

Yet Boao has its own particular blend of officiousness. About 1,700 journalists attended, but only about two dozen of them were allowed in the event’s four conference rooms at any one time. The press was put up in designated hotels up to an hour’s ride away, and bused in. Mr Xi did not speak to them. He has rarely met reporters since becoming president five years ago, except at carefully choreographed press conferences on foreign trips. At the press centre free copies of works by Mr Xi, translated into various languages, were on offer. (Oddly for works that the party is eager to promote, journalists were told only “limited numbers” were available.) Not quite like a day skiing at Davos, but such are the perks of Boao.

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